A Short History of the Mill River

April 2012*

John Sinton

"No group sets out to create a landscape, of course.  What it sets out to do is to create a community, and the landscape as its visible manifestation is simply the by-product of people working and living, sometimes coming together, sometimes staying apart, but always recognizing their interdependence."  – J.B. Jackson

You are about to embark on a narrative journey that will take you back to Lake Hitchcock 20,000 years ago, then to the arrival of the first peoples 11,000 years ago, up to the Nonotuck Indians’ first contact with Europeans in the 1650s, through the colonial period, the Great Awakening of the 18th century, and past the American Revolution and Industrial Revolution, into the industrialization of America in the 19th century, past the height of America’s manufacturing prominence and environmental degradation in the first half of the 20th century, then, in the second half, the decline of America’s industrial might simultaneous with dramatic environmental improvement, and finally to the adaptation of a New England landscape to the new economy, however one might define it.  The Mill River watershed encompasses all this.

A Little Geomorphology           

You have before you a post glacial landscape, shaped by the retreat of the enormous Lake Hitchcock that stretched from Rocky Hill, CT to St. Johnsbury, VT.  The meadows of Northampton are formed from several thousand years of Connecticut River flood deposits from upstram.  The higher ground in Northampton is composed of glacial deposits that overlay the silts and clays from the bottom of Lake Hitchcock.  There is a natural falls, now dammed, at Smith College, named Paradise Pond.  Farther upstream, the Mill is constrained by two post-glacial mounds, called drumlins, one on the right bank at Bay State, and the other on the left bank, also at Bay State.  The next falls with a dam just upstream are found at Florence.  Immediately upriver are agricultural fields now named the Northampton Community Farm made of deposits from an old lake.  Above that, the river narrows to a falls at Leeds, then another one at Haydenville, after which it flattens out a bit up to Williamsburg center.  Then, finally, the valley steepens and splits into 2 branches, rising up to the man-made Highland Lakes in the town of Goshen.  (see this page for length and fall of the river: )

Why the Mill River Matters

Northampton was originally arranged around the Mill River as it feeds into the Connecticut through the meadows.  Northamptonites spent time and treasure to re-arrange their lives around the Mill River floods and to divert it away from its original course out into the Connecticut, then re-divert it more toward its 17th century flow.

The Mill River matters because it provided the flowing water to power the mills that ran the industries that fed, sheltered, and clothed the residents (grist/saw/fulling) and later ran the textile and other industries that were exported to the wider world. The Mill River matters because it is the most important recreational and natural element in the landscape of Williamsburg and Northampton, as well as the home for trout and perch, wood ducks and mallards, green and great blue herons, crawfish, frogs, salamanders, insects, and a host of mammals from mink and muskrat to beaver and fisher.

Finally, the Mill River matters because it defines the landscape of this place -- it is the reason why Northampton and Williamsburg look the way they do. We must recover the lost path of the river in Northampton to discover the essence of this town, its layout, and its history.

The Prehistoric River

Paleolithic people arrived in the Pioneer Valley at least 11,000 years ago when the land was covered with the kind of spruce/fir forests one finds in northern Canada.  They were followed by a series of other peoples, and, as the climate warmed over the next 5,000 years, the landscape became clothed in the same mixed hardwood/white pine/hemlock woodlands we see today.  By the time of European contact in the mid-17th century, the Nonotuck people were occupying the lower section of the Mill River with permanent horticultural fields near the mouth of the Mill. The story of the Algonkian people who lived here and the desperately sad history of their diaspora in the 17th and 18th centuries can be found in Devil's Den to Lickingwater: The Mill River Through Landscape and History by John Sinton and available from Leveller's Press.

The Mill in 1650 ran south from Paradise Pond, then east along the north side of Fort Hill, around the back of Veterans’ Field, continuing eastward around the northeast end of Fort Hill near the Roundhouse parking lot, then turning southward along the rail trail, and then it finally took a sharp turn to the west, following the southern edge of Fort Hill that borders the Manhan Meadows.   It entered Hulburt’s Pond in about the same location as it does today.  Because it ran through wet meadows into the slack water of an ancient oxbow (Hulburt’s Pond), it probably attracted few migratory fish, such as shad and salmon.

The 17th Century

…was as bloody a century as the modern world has witnessed, and certainly as chaotic.  While the English and Natives had a complex relationship, as often as not they were both subject to war and massacre.  While the English settlers managed to expel almost all the Native Americans, many Northampton men participated in the almost continual French/English battles until 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

The first 24 English families who settled in Northampton found a landscape as close to that of their original homeland as they could hope, namely wet meadows for cattle and sheep, fields that had long been tilled, timber for construction, and a running river for mills.  They built their first houses on: King, Pleasant, Market, Hawley, and Bridge streets.  The latter was named for the bridge over Parson’s Brook, a tributary to the Mill that ran from North Street and paralleled Market and Hawley near the current railroad tracks, joining the Mill near the juncture of Hawley and Pleasant Streets.  (Parson’s Brook is clearly delineated on an 1831 map and is still there in 1860.  See 1831 map.)  Shortly thereafter, lots were laid out on Main and South streets, and the Meeting House was built on the site of what is currently the Old Courthouse.  In 1660 the town built the first bridge across the Mill River at South Street to connect to the 2 new streets of Fruit and Maple (now called Conz) at the edge of the Manhan Meadows.

One can see the first mill site, called the Lower Mills, built in about 1660, just downstream from Veterans’ Field, but the drop in the river was so small that there was little power to run the mill.  The second site was the Upper Mills at Paradise Pond, which became a permanent industrial site that lasted until the early 20th century.  The Upper Mills occasioned the town to build a new road, Green Street, to connect the center of Northampton to its mills.

These little mills, subject to fire and flood, led an ephemeral existence, which must have made for a harrowing livelihood for the mill owners and millers.  At least 4 Northampton mills had to be rebuilt in the 20 years between the 1670s and 1690s.

Mill River floods caused constant problems throughout the17th century, and there are a few records of an enormous winter flood in 1691 when rain fell in February almost continually for 5 days, during which “the sun was not seen,” and “the water rose to such a height as was scarce known in the country before.”

Spring floods, called freshets, were as common then as know. The first attempt at flood control occurred in 1699 when the town voted to have dikes built to prevent the river from overflowing its banks onto the Manhan Meadows, endangering their livestock, but it didn’t work, so sometime between 1710 and 1720, townspeople took it upon themselves to change the course of the river, to divert it away from Fort Hill, down through town and into the Connecticut directly into what is now the Oxbow, where it remained for the next 220 years. (proprietors’ map 1794)

The 18th Century – 1700-1780

…witnessed significant social, economic, and cultural changes in the Mill River watershed, but only modest changes to the physical character of the river after the river’s diversion in 1720.

Most industrial activity on the river remained limited to the Lower and Upper Mills where the Kingsley brothers, Moses and Samuel, resuscitated the Lower Mills in the 1740s by constructing what must have been a very high dam since it backed water all the way up to the Upper Mills (Paradise Pond), impeding the use of the grist and sawmill at the Upper Mill.  A 50-year legal battle ensued, ending only in 1791 when the owners of the Lower Mills promised “to keep the water at the same level as a bar that the selectmen set in a rock 36 feet above the dam.”  Such was the litigious society of Northampton.

Other mills were built upstream of the Upper Mills, chiefly at the falls in Florence, then called Broughton’s field, where there were a grist- and sawmill in operation by the middle of the 18th century.  The industrial development of Leeds and Williamsburg had not yet begun, and these areas saw only few settlers.

Although the town had diverted the mouth of the Mill away from the Manhan Meadows, floods destroyed bridges and mills throughout the century.  We have short descriptions of these events, but only in the 19th century do we get detailed newspaper and first-hand accounts of floods. We should also remember that Northampton remained a very compact town in which only a small portion near the Manhan Meadows was subject to serious flooding.  This significantly limited flood damage to any but the mills and bridges, which, as we have seen, were subject to frequent fire and flood.


We now come to the period of greatest economic change for the Mill River watershed:

  • The end of the American Revolution brought new industrial opportunities to the watershed, and the start of the Industrial Revolution brought in new technologies.
  • The start of the potash industry introduced the first slash-and-burn clearcutting in the watershed, leading to severe soil erosion, increasing runoff, and flood hazard especially in the upper watershed.
  • While the Lower and Upper Mills in the center of Northampton continued to host small industrial concerns, chiefly a wood-turning business, a lead pipe factory, and grist- and sawmills, industrial concerns moved upriver to better water-power sites in Florence, Leeds, and Williamsburg.
  • Industry flourished during the first half of the 19th century in Florence, Leeds, and the villages of Williamsburg – Haydenville, Skinnerville, and Searsville.  The silk industry came to Broughton’s Meadows, changing its name to Florence where the famous utopian community, the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, found a home.  James Shepherd built a woolen and cotton mill at Shepherd’s Hollow, later called Leeds.  The Hayden family laid the foundations for what would become the watershed’s most important industrial hub by mid-century, and, farther upstream, Skinnerville and Searsville had several factories.  There were early 18th-century mills all the way up the east and west branches, even up to Devil’s Den near the  Goshen town line.
  • After what appears to have been an uneventful final quarter to the 18th century, with no notable floods, the 19th century began with one of the region’s greatest floods, the Jefferson flood of 1801.  This was followed by powerful floods in 1828 when the dam at Florence and bridges in Williamsburg were demolished, and then in 1840 and 1843 when, as had so often happened, houses and barns in Fruit and Conz (Maple) streets were badly damaged.  1840 was a fearful flood in which the waters of the Connecticut River slammed the accumulated remains of bridges, trees, and buildings into the right bank of the river at the Northampton Meadows, sealing the river’s original course around a right-hand bend, thus creating the current Oxbow, which Thomas Coles had painted from Mt. Holyoke just four years prior.

This era, 1780-1840, is particularly important for what disappears from the landscape and what remains today.  Gone are most signs of 18th-century houses and mills, particularly in the center of Northampton, which loses most of its mills and factories to better sites upstream.  What remains are vestiges of the early Industrial Revolution.  In short, the first 200 years of the Mill River’s industrial history is lost, while the current landscape begins to appear.


The hundred years from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century witnessed both the height of industrial development in the watershed and its precipitous decline, marked by the great 1874 Flood Disaster and the destruction of downtown Northampton in the 1936 and 1938 floods.  By 1870, there were more than 70 mills on the 12 miles of Mill River between Williamsburg and the Northampton meadows.  In 1940, about 20 factories remained.  (These numbers need to be checked.)  Elizabeth Sharpe’s In the Shadow of the Dam is an outstanding history of the 1874 disaster and life in the upper watershed in the 19th century.

  • Northampton’s population grew from 3,750 in 1840 to 12,172 in 1880 to almost 25,000 in 1940, while Williamsburg’s grew from 1,309 in 1840 to 2,234 in 1880, but had dropped back to 1,684 in 1940.  These numbers shadow the fortunes of Mill River factories the watershed.  Unlike Williamsburg, however, Northampton maintained a small number of specialized industries, as well as a large state mental hospital, and it remained the county seat.
  • By the middle of the 19th century, outside capital and the railroad, along with higher consumer and export demand, plus increased technological capabilities had reduced the importance of Mill River industries in the face of enormous factories, such as those in Holyoke and the Blackstone and Merrimack Valley.  In response, the Mill River factories provided specialty products, such as Haydenville’s famous buttons, Florence’s silks, and Bay State’s cutlery.
  • At the Lower Mills, the site of Northampton’s first grist mill, a series of entrepreneurs from basket makers to wire factories to hoopskirt makers appeared and disappeared.  The grist and sawmills of Upper Mills at Paradise Pond burned down in the 1850s, but two owners of a cutlery in Bay State, Maynard & Clement, built a large hoe factory in 1866 at Paradise Pond.  The factory was plagued with financial, flood, and fire problems, and burned for the last time in 1919.  A factory building remains at the Lower Mills, but there is no sign of the Hoe factory.
  • A paper factory continued operation at Paper Mill Village until 1887, after which it was turned into a cutlery, still in use in 1940.  The 1840s saw the development of cutlery factories in Bay State, which continued throughout this period.  A defunct wire factory occupies the paper mill site.  A precision engineering company and several offices are in two old Bay State factory guildings.
  • Mill River industry in Florence, however, remained viable, and its most important factory was not destroyed by the 1874 Flood.  Silk was profitable until the Corticelli Silk Company (Nonotuck Silk Mills) closed during the Depression, but the Pro-Phyl-Lactic Brush Company (aka Florence Manufacturing, currently called Nonotuck Mills) continued operations from the mid-19th into the 21st century.
  • All mills and dams upstream of Florence were either destroyed or severely damaged, and this at the very time when, as Elizabeth Sharpe has pointed out, America’s manufacturing was transforming itself from traditional textiles and buttons to silk and metals.  Many factories in the upper watershed never recovered, and the village of Skinnerville disappeared, leaving only remnants of its former self.  There remain, however, beautiful historic buildings, the Brass Works at Haydenville among them.  The river from Florence to Williamsburg has outstanding opportunities for exploring and developing a greenway that illustrates a classic New England industrial landscape.
  • Floods other than that of 1874, however, proved far more damaging to the lower than the upper river.  The 1854 flood made Fruit and Conz Streets passable only by boat, and there was considerable damage to mills and dams as far upriver as Florence.  The great Lincoln Flood of 1862 breached the dike protecting Fruit and Conz, flooding the meadows and killing livestock.  Floods in 1869 and 1895 were mere nuisances compared to the disastrous 1936 flood that inundated much of downtown Northampton, and, combined with the hurricane of 1938, induced the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1940 to divert the river at the Felt Building away from the downtown area and back into Hulburt’s Pond, where it originally entered in 1650.
  • Over the past 15 years, there has been considerable discussion on how to memorialize the former river bed (The Hidden Mill River).  The current Mill River Greenway Initiative, in fact, follows a hundred years of discussion about recreational trails along the river in Northampton.  (see appendix on a History of a Mill River Greenway Vision)


Census data

Northampton’s population in the 17th century:

1658             40 settlers and about 200 people (Neuberg)

1660             57 landholders and 300-400 people   “

1674            1,284 people, not including 10 negroes & 1 family of 9 people (Neuberg)

* numbers are given in total population/population density per mi2

1765  Hamp: 1,285/38  Burgy (1776 data) 534/26  Spngfld  2,755/66

1790  Hamp: 1,628/48  Burgy 1049/40       Spngfld  1,574/28

1820  Hamp  2,854/84  Burgy 1,087/42         Spngfld  3,914/70

1840  Hamp  3,750/110    Burgy  1,309/50      Spngfld  10,985/196

1860  Hamp  6,788/200   Burgy  2,094/81      Spngfld  15,199/475

1880  Hamp   12,172/358    Burgy  2,234/86     Spngfld  33,340/1,042

1900  Hamp  18,643/548  Burgy  1,926/74    Spngfld  62,059/1,939

1920   Hamp  21,951/646   Burgy  1,866/72   Spngfld  129,614/4,050

1940   Hamp  24,794/729   Burgy  1,684/65  Spngfld  149,554/4,674

1960  Hamp  30,058/884  Burgy   2,186/84    Spngfld  174,463/5,452

1980  Hamp   29,286/861  Burgy   2,237/86    Spngfld  152,319/4,760

2000   Hamp  28,978/841  Burgy  2,427/195  Spngfld  152,082/4,738

2010   Hamp    28,549        Burgy  2,217            Spngfld  153,060

n.b. 1765/1776 data from Greene, E. & V. Harrington. 1932. American Population Before the Census of 1790. NY: Columbia Univ.  1790- from US census schedules

History of a Mill River Greenway Vision

1880s.  From the Northampton OPD 2002 Redevelopment Plan: “The idea of having a park along the river bed is not a new one,” wrote the late local historian Alice Manning in 1977 in one of her many columns on local history which appeared Daily Hampshire Gazette. “Agitation for…a beauty spot along the river to be called ‘Paradise Park’“ first began in the 1880’s, she reported, without elaborating.

1934 Just 2 years prior to the flood of 1936, the Northampton Congregational clergyman and author Gerald Stanley Lee proposed a Calvin Coolidge Riverpath Park as a memorial to the late Calvin Coolidge.  Rather than a static museum or statue (“a man all dolled up in bronze”), Lee wrote that the “memorial should be a living, growing thing.  It should be so attractive, so daily used and appreciated by all kinds and types of people that when Calvin came back for that night off, (and I hope for that day off) he would be proud and glad of what he was daily doing, years and years after he was dead, to make Northampton happy!”

Lee wanted to propose nothing less than a replacement for “Northampton’s tin-can, orange peel and ashes backyard – a kind of sleazy sewer stringing itself shamelessly through the very heart of our fair city.”  The heart of his proposal makes Lee sound like the Robert Moses of Northampton.

“If [automobile drivers] will take a whiz up South street to Hebert avenue – the steep hill down toward the river, near the Lathrop home and get down out of their cars and walk – actually walk – turn in sharply to the right along the near side of the nearest barn, they will find a path already made – half a mile or so, along the winding hill by the river, half-way up – a boy-made path just as Coolidge would have made it, or helped make it himself – a path under big elm trees and occasionally under big pines all the way down to the back of the South street school.  He will see boys already playing ball on the wide level meadow in the big West street bend in the river.  He will see other boys in swimming pools, and as he goes down back of Fort Hill terrace and the foot of School street and the foot of Clark avenue to the old mill and the dam, he will see boys fishing and wading.  In fact the outlines of the park, having been made out already by Northampton’s future Presidents of the United States, all that the best gardeners and engineers in the United States will have to do will be to see to it that the boys’ outlines are followed up – putting in additions, of course, a few bridges here and there, stone seats for motorists who are trying to walk, to rest on – top-spinning, rope-jumping places and sandpiles for kids, and now and then a friendly roof for rains.  At the turn of the river above the mill the city, of course, by right of eminent domain would take over our present tincan and garbage garden at the turn of the river above the mill, which West street keeps objecting to – taking a strip about twenty feet wide or so –just enough for a path.  By putting in a few bridges here and there – especially decorative ones, and by taking over the old mill for a recreation house, by making paths down both sides of the river under the Old South street footbridge to the ripples – (the nice wading place everybody stands on bridge and listens to, thinking how he used to wade) and continuing the paths with sidewalk on the railroad wall down to the Pleasant street bridge we would have a park a mile or so long, a stone’s throw from everybody, right in the very heart of the city Calvin Coolidge was mayor of and President from!  Nine or ten entrances on both sides just come along naturally.  Hebert avenue hill, the South street school land, the tip of School street, the tip of Clark avenue by the old mill, Old South street underpass from Main street, the old footbridge rebuilt across from Pleasant street under the leaning tree to the old Basket shop.  There should also be a West street entrance, one at Hawley school or from back of Forbes library with a bridge across the railway to the old mill bridge.  The Riverpath park would also connect with the Paradise walk at the McCallum bridge.”0000

Since the 1970s a number of planning documents have addressed attempts to develop designs for a Mill River Greenway.  Please see the 2002 Redevelopment plan for Northampton (google Northampton 2002 Historic Redevelopment Plan and select the first .pdf file)

* This was originally written for the of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects, Western Massachusetts Section for their charrette on April 18, 2012 in celebration of Landscape Architecture Month.